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The award-winning "Connected" is made out of fleece, rope, and things you can pick up at a hardware store.

Building makes him happy

University graduate student turns things we take for granted into art; wins international sculpture award

By Pauline Oo

From M, winter 2008

When R. Justin Stewart looks at a map, he sees more than a way to get from Point A to Point B. For example, a transit map that shows a bus route can also reveal where people without cars might live. Or a bridge, built to connect one place to another, has an underbelly that can serve as shelter.

Stewart's eye for detail and ability to notice what the rest of us may miss or take for granted is apparent in most, if not all, of his complex and often whimsical mixed-media installations and wall sculptures. On Saturday, October 6, Stewart received an award for Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture from the International Sculpture Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1960 to advance the understanding of sculpture and its contribution to society. He is one of the 21 recipients selected from a pool of 339 college students from five countries. And the first University of Minnesota winner.

"I've never been nominated for anything like this before," says Stewart, an M.F.A. candidate in the U's sculpture program whose name was among two submitted by University assistant professor of art Andrea Stanislav. "I wasn't holding my breath because it's such a big international award--you don't assume you are going to get it. So, it's a gigantic honor."

His winning piece--a 15 feet-by-8 feet creation called "Connected" that's made mostly out of things you can pick up at a hardware store--is part of the Grounds For Sculpture Fall/Winter Exhibition (October 6, 2007, through April 27, 2008) in Hamilton, New Jersey, and also featured, along with Stewart's profile, in the October 2007 issue of Sculpture magazine--a publication that Stewart happens to read religiously. ("It covers some of the best sculpture work that's being made, and if you're interested in making art you can't not look at it or reference it," he says.)

R. Justin Stewart
R. Justin Stewart's latest masterpiece is inspired by the Minneapolis-St. Paul bus map.--Photo by Patrick O'Leary

"Connected," says Stewart, is a culmination of three years of work. "It represents an approach to thinking about networks, systems, and structures," he explains. "Of how these entities affect each other and the world--or, in this case, the wall--they are connected to and how the new environment they end up in can alter their forms."

The piece also explores the idea of "taking common materials and transforming them into something that I see as more beautiful than any one of them by themselves," says Stewart.

"I am interested in people asking, 'What is that? It looks familiar, but I'm not sure what it is,'" he adds. "And when they leave [after seeing my work], they notice, say, the pipe outside the building that looks like something I used inside.... A good piece of art prods you to think. Doesn't matter what it prods you to think about; any thought is important."

Stewart was no child prodigy growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Instead, the lively artist candidly admits not valuing art until his sophomore year in high school.

"My football coach was the ceramics teacher, and he was an amazing artist and also an amazing football coach," says Stewart. "I took ceramics as a slacker class because I thought, 'It's ceramics; how hard could that be? And it's my football coach, so he has to give me an A.' But I really fell in love with making things, and then from there, I went on to art school. I didn't really know what I was getting into--I was a total jock, and I was the captain of the football team. Art school, though, completely transformed my way of thought. It blew open my world."

Today, Stewart works six days a week as an artist, in addition to being a fulltime art student, teaching assistant, and faculty research assistant at the University.

On appreciating art...

There's no wrong way to approach art.
"But I do think that some people when they approach art [want it to mean something]," says R. Justin Stewart. "It's almost like when we look at a tool and immediately think about how to use it or what it's for. We're so used to things always being [a certain way or having a specific purpose.] You can't look at art that way. Its not a functional object."

Look for art that grabs you and spend time with it.
"There's too much out there," says Stewart. "If you spent an hour with every piece of art you saw, you would never go anywhere else." So, be selective. The other thing you could do, offers Stewart, if you can't physically look at a piece is to think about it. "Great pieces of art will stay with you, in your mind, for a while."

"I had a teacher once tell me, if there's any job you could do other than be an artist and be happy, you should do that," says Stewart. "Because being an artist is a really horrible job; the hours are awful. The problem is I'm happiest when I'm doing what I'm doing." Stewart is currently working on three projects related to the Minneapolis-St Paul bus system. He graduates from the University of Minnesota next May, and then it's off to New York with his fianc?e.

"We like the city, and we have a lot of friends there," he says. "Sure, it's hard to break in there, but it's hard to break in everywhere. My goal isn't at all to make it big. That'll be great if it happens, but my goal is to continue pushing myself to do things that I'm interested in."

R. Justin Stewart's favorite places to view "great art."

In Minneapolis
Franklin Art Works, Soo Visual Art Center, and The Soap Factory

On the U's Twin Cities campus
Katherine E. Nash Gallery and Weisman Art Museum